Sunday, May 4, 2014

Game Master Intrusions ForTheWin!

I felt pretty good about my last blog until I re-read it a few days later.  It was dense, jumbled and full of jargon.  I tried to do too much and I found it difficult to read.  This entry is my clarification for you and an exercise in revision, concision and penance for me.  It is a rewrite of the last entry; one that attempts to be readable and helpful.

Essay Begins Here....

In Other Dust, Kevin Crawford specifically invites game masters to make his game their own.  The game mechanics he presents are very simple and easy use. The new systems he has built for his setting and genre provide excellent models of how to supplement basic mechanics with innovation.  His game is essentially modular and allows for a great deal of modification without touching the core task-resolution/dramatic engine.*

In the Other Dust game that I run, I am going to add a meta-game currency to give the players and I a few more options for the types of situations that they are going to face.  I don't feel that it is my job as GM to be objective and impartial. I've read too much Wick and Laws to feel like I am somehow detached from what is happening at the table. However, I have also read enough Wick and Laws to know that simply being an interfering, arbitrary bastard is not the preferred alternative. I want a way to drive the story that is fun for the players but does not turn into Mr. Nelson's Railroad to Story Town.

The two alternatives that I considered were the Game Master Intrusion (GMI) mechanic from Numenera and the Benny system from Savage Worlds.  Both are fun systems and both have added a lot of fun to games I have played over the years.  I chose the GMI mechanic because it is the more pro-active of the two and because it has the potential to bring some of Other Dust's methods for making characters suffer to the fore more regularly.

Bennies have always bothered me, because they are both given and played reactively.  They are awarded for things the players have done, either in or out of character, and are spent to re-roll or reverse some adversity.  Bennies are good for shaping player behavior, to be sure, but they hold little potential for advancing the story of the game beyond "I was hurt but now I am not" or "I failed but then I didn't."  One of the things that players always want to do is share bennies, but Savage Worlds requires the players to pay for that privilege by taking an Edge** and when they get the chance the usually opt for better skills or cooler abilities.  Bennies certainly add a great deal of fun to a game, but there is a better alternative for the kind of fun I would like to see at the table.

With GMI's, the GM pays the player to allow some kind of trouble to befall him or her.  Examples of GMI's might be a torn pack strap, having equipment broken or stolen, or treachery from trusted NPC's.  GMI's in Other Dust can force saves to avoid conditions like Wounded or Radiated  They can  jam guns and foul rations. The story can get very juicy very quickly through the use of GMI's; their potential to raise the grain of the rules to ensure the characters a full taste of the dangers of the game world gives me goose bumps.

On the player side, GMI's are immediately a bonding experience because the players are paid two tokens for their trouble, one of which they must immediately give to another player.  This cuts off the all-your-bennies-are-belong-to-YOU problem at the knees.  GMI tokens can be used for re-rolls, recoveries and reversals like bennies, but they can also be redeemed for explicit, story-driven bonuses that connect the characters with the setting.  For example, a character who has been fighting a clan of bandits for a few sessions might redeem a token for a bonus to fight that particular group of bandits.  He might also spend the token to recognize a bandit as a former childhood friend or rival, giving the group a new menu of problem-solving strategies.

I am very excited about this.  Monte Cook has done something remarkable with GMI's in that he has given players and GM's a story-building tool that does not feel like a plot hammer.  The GMI allows a kind of ebb and flow between GM and player control of the action that can only enhance our Other Dust game. I will be sure to report back with the results of this experiment when I have some data. Wish me luck!

*I think the core tension-building questions of most procedural RPG's are "Will this work?" and "Will I live through this?"  Answering these questions with random number generation give everyone at the table a jolt of risk-joy that is part of the fun of RP'ing.

**Edges are like feats: special abilities gained via character advancement